One of the benefits of reaching that age where they automatically give you a pensioner’s discount at the supermarket check-out without asking for an ID, is having the time – and the good sense – to turn a potentially mundane trip into a mini-holiday.
And this is exactly what we did when travelling between our Mossel Bay and Pretoria homes during March this year – instead of rushing to complete the 1250 kms road journey in 2 days with one overnight stop, we decided to stretch it out with a two night stay in Prince Albert, Western Cape and a further night in Springfontein, Free State, turning it into a four day, three night adventure.
Day 1 Thursday
After spending most of the morning packing, loading and preparing our Mossel Bay home for a lengthy hibernation, we left around lunchtime and set off on the familiar route to Prince Albert via the scenic Robinson Pass then through the town of Oudtshoorn and the winding road that takes you through the spectacular Meiringspoort. No matter how many times we drive this route, I still end up driving through Meiringspoort with my jaw in a dropped position – it is that special.
But this time there was a twist – just beyond the last of the 25 river crossings (it’s the same river each time) we encountered the first of many swarms of locusts that filled the air and pinged and ‘thunked’ against the grille, windscreen and roof of our SUV as we drove. The arid parts of South Africa have been plagued by swarms of biblical proportions through the summer, due to good rains after years of drought conditions.
This video was taken after stopping at the roadside and gives an idea of the numbers of locusts – a tiny fraction of what we drove through for tens of kilometres
Once we reached our destination I spent half an hour carefully prising locust bodies from every nook and cranny of our car, at the same time providing a veritable feast for an army of ants that descended on them as they dropped to the ground.
Our usual B&B in Prince Albert was fully booked so we had booked into one we had not tried before – De Bergkant Lodge – which turned out to be an excellent choice – lovely spacious room, good breakfast, efficient management and a super 15m pool which I immediately tried out as the temperature was hovering in the low 30’s (deg C)
After the swim and relaxing a while we had dinner at the Rude Chef (No – he/she wasn’t) restaurant. Prince Albert has always had an amazing selection of quality restaurants for a small Karoo town, but like so many other places Covid has had a devastating effect on the tourist industry which is only now recovering. So the choice of eating places has reduced but the quality is still there.
Day 2 Friday
After breakfast at the pool we set off late morning to visit the Weltevrede Fig Farm about 30 kms outside Prince Albert, along a gravel road that made its way through the mountains in spectacular fashion providing beautiful views over every rise.
Weltevrede appeared at the end of the road, like an oasis in the arid countryside, the fig trees spreading up and down the valley in a broad green ribbon.
We had a look around then settled at a table under a tree and lingered over a light lunch and coffee, just enjoying the ambience while farm workers carried out tray after tray of prepared figs and set them out to dry in the pure Karoo sunshine, where the air is dry and devoid of any pollutants.
We took our time travelling back to Prince Albert and relaxed for a while before I set out to add some species to the pentad list that I had begun the previous afternoon with mostly the species visiting the garden. Heading out of town in a northerly direction I soon found Pririt Batis, Namaqua Dove, Pied Barbet and White-necked Raven and a swing past the small Waste water treatment works added SA Shelduck to take my pentad list to a modest 30.
After another invigorating swim we walked across the road to La-di-dah restaurant for a meal – our first choice was grilled Karoo lamb chops but disappointingly they had just sold the last ones and we had to revert to other meat dishes.
Day 3 Saturday
A longish drive lay ahead so we left after breakfast and made good time via Prince Albert Road where we joined the N1 National road to Beaufort West, Richmond and Colesberg, with comfort and coffee stops at Three Sisters, Karoo Padstal and Chargo Farm Stall at Colesberg.
As we left Prince Albert a Booted Eagle flew over the road ahead and I quickly added this welcome raptor to my pentad list.
We reached our overnight stop – Prior Grange farm near Springfontein – just after 5 pm and settled in to the Garden Cottage.
It was time for my birding/relaxing walk to stretch my legs and with not much daylight left I headed straight to the dam behind the farm house and found it fuller than I had ever seen it, in complete contrast to our last visit before Covid when it had held a fraction of the water it now had.
The dam had a single Grey Heron and small numbers of Red-knobbed Coots, Moorhens, Cape Shovelers, Yellow-billed Ducks, Red-billed Teals, Little Grebes and SA Shelducks, while the reeds were busy with Bishops and Weavers and a single African Reed Warbler which had me puzzled for a while as it was making an unusual sound (for me, probably not for him)
Heading back to the cottage I added Karoo Thrush, Pied Starling and Fiscal Flycatcher before dusk fell, taking my pentad list to 32 after an hour’s atlasing, leaving the next morning to complete the two hour minimum atlasing to count as a “Full Protocol” card. Dinner, served in the cottage, was roast lamb and veg – what else on a Karoo farm?
Day 4 Sunday
I was up early to complete the pentad card with a walk around the garden and along the road, adding Cloud Cisticola, Lesser Kestrel (on the same pole as I had seen it a few years ago), Cape Glossy Starling and Anteating Chat.
The grassland next to the road was waterlogged in places after substantial summer rains
On the road out after a full English breakfast I added a few more including a Black-headed Heron at a mini wetland in the town, taking the pentad total to 44 and raising my personal tally for the pentad to 98 species after completing 6 cards since 2014.
All that remained was a drive of around 550 kms to our home in Pretoria – we arrived just after 4 pm, glad to be ‘home’ (Pretoria version)